Last year I got it in my head that it would be fun to do a series exploring John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. During my time in grad school I had a brief fascination with Milton that was largely spurred on by my immersion in evangelical subculture at the time. Much of the modern understanding of the story of the Fall is derived from Milton’s work, even though many smarter people than me have pointed out that in reality, he was more or less just writing his own fanfiction about something that he really loved (seriously, when you realize that Milton includes an extended passage explaining how Adam and Eve’s digestive systems worked so that they never actually pooped in the garden, you know you’re dealing with a superfan). Milton’s imagining of the events leading up to the Fall depicted in Genesis are quite fantastic, and well worth looking at if you have the stomach for poetry.
I like to think of issue #23 of The Sandman as Gaiman’s love letter to Milton’s Satan. From the opening page depicting Dream flying through an infinite nowhere that’s evocative of the unshapen chaos that Satan traverses on his way to infiltrate the garden after he hears about the creation of humans (it’s a terrifying experience, even for a being of near infinite power) to Lucifer’s extended meditation (most of this issue is a prolonged monologue given by Lucifer while he shuts Hell down) on whether his rebellion in Heaven was actually a rebellion or just another facet of the Creator’s plan, Gaiman is riffing on ideas presented in Paradise Lost. The entire effect of the issue, at least to me, even echoes what I thought about Book One of Paradise Lost (the first book details the aftermath of Satan’s failed rebellion and his attempt to pick up the pieces and establish his reign over Pandemonium besides the lake of fire), which was that there’s a lot about this devil guy to sympathize with (my professor in undergrad with whom I first read parts of Paradise Lost rather soundly deconstructed these feelings of sympathy in her lecture on the text, but I still think there’s a hint of admiration to be found in Milton’s voice). In Gaiman’s writing, Lucifer comes across as imminently sympathetic. He’s been villainized by mortals as the one responsible for their bad behavior when he honestly doesn’t give a damn, and he kind of resents the fact that for all his power in Hell, he’s still operating according to the whims of the mortals who find themselves there after they die (Lucifer insists that people who come to Hell do so because they believe they should be there, and the punishments they receive are self-directed). Like with Milton’s Satan, you have to first accept what Gaiman’s Lucifer says at face value, but it does sound really convincing (particularly in the cosmology of The Sandman where the supernatural seems to spring from the Dreaming, which is a landscape for the collective unconscious of all mortals in the universe).
The ultimate effect is that I consciously recognize that Lucifer is still antagonizing Dream (particularly knowing what’s going to happen because he hands the key to Hell over to him), but in the moments where Lucifer steps down from his office and offers his complaint about what his existence has been like, I feel for the guy. He’s really screwing Dream over in the process, but I don’t begrudge him deciding that he doesn’t have to be responsible for playing the adversary to a Divinity who might have manipulated him into the role in the first place. Lucifer’s an agent of free will, and he won’t be damned if he can help it.
Besides exercising his free will (we get a lovely little scene where Lucifer demonstrates his commitment to refusing obligations that he doesn’t want by evicting a small group of fiends who don’t want to leave because they think the lord of Hell should continue fighting the bad fight, as it were; he tells them he’ll do “what he damn well likes” and sends them away), Lucifer also explores the topic of infinite punishment for finite crimes. Besides the stubborn demons, he also has to contend with a stubborn man who insists that he must suffer for eternity to pay for his really quite gruesome litany of crimes. Lucifer is unmoved by the catalogue, and points out that all the murders were of people who would have been long dead by this point in time anyway (he seems to have no empathy for the magnitude of suffering that the guy with the hooks in his face inflicted during his life), and everyone’s forgotten his name on top of that (it’s a nice little variation on “Ozymandias”), so the punishment has become pointless. A little later in the issue, when Lucifer discusses his own crimes we get to see that he’s really thinking about himself, and whether it’s just that he should rule Hell for eternity because of his rebellion (he acknowledges that returning to life as an angel is out of the question probably both because he wouldn’t be welcomed back and because he’d find the servitude galling after millennia playing the bad guy for God).
Turning to the art of the issue, Kelley Jones does some incredible work with close up panels of faces in this issue. It’s a very talky issue with a fair bit of back and forth between Lucifer and Dream, but pretty frequently Jones interjects a panel or two that consists only of a look from one of the two central characters that conveys a lot of information with just a look (also, every panel where Kelley Jones gets to draw a character’s teeth is one of my favorite because he always draws them in a way that rushes headlong into the uncanny valley, which is a wonderfully unsettling effect for a book focused on Dream and Lucifer). Besides the lovely close-ups, Jones also draws some great hellscapes that convey the emptiness and the vastness of the place.
Next issue sees more of Jones’s signature creepy teeth and the fallout of Lucifer’s parting gift to Dream begins to make itself apparent.